SOAS University of London

James Edgar Taylor

When in 1999 and aged in my seventies I enrolled for the taught masters course in Arabic, it marked the renewal of an association with SOAS that began 44 years previously with my enrolment on an occasional course in Yoruba.

When in 1999 and aged in my seventies I enrolled for the taught masters course in Arabic, it marked the renewal of an association with SOAS that began 44 years previously with my enrolment on an occasional course in Yoruba.

I had just left the Colonial Engineering Service in East Africa for a job in Nigeria with the United Africa Company. Having several months leave due to me, I decided to use the time until my departure for West Africa in acquiring a smattering of the local language.

How different things were in those days! Yoruba was taught in one of the annexes at the corner of Thornhaugh Street and Russell Square by a retired clergyman who had previously ministered in the country. It was not a language study for which there was a great demand at the time, and a middle-aged lady and I were the only students on the course. She did much better than I did, for Yoruba is a tonal language, which I found difficult to master and so had to spend hours in the language laboratory in order to keep up. There were no audiocassettes in those days, and so we had to struggle with an idiosyncratic record player and well-worn discs. I fear that all my hard work was largely in vain. I had contracted a particularly virulent brand of dysentery in East Africa and had to receive treatment for it in the hospital for tropical diseases in Mornington Crescent, where I was tended by a Yoruba-speaking nurse. My efforts to converse with her in her native tongue would set her rocking with merriment at my tonal blunders, for a slight change of tone could turn a perfectly innocuous expression into something risqué and vulgar.

The creature comforts at SOAS were exceptional in those days. Use of the squash courts was free and so, if my memory serves me correctly, were the services of the squash coach. The school had an excellent dining room, and there was good swimming at ULU where a splendid new pool had recently been installed. It was rather like an exclusive gentlemen’s club but at considerably less expense! This is understandable when one bears in mind that many of my fellow students appeared to be mature Colonial Service and military officers, diplomats and senior officials of commercial houses, studying one of the many languages on offer at SOAS at their employers’ expense. As far as I could see, the make-up of the student corpus was largely white, male, affluent and older.

I found the changed circumstances of my second visit to the School in 1999 a really quite enjoyable contrast. The multi-ethnicity of the students was like the mix to which I had become accustomed in my life abroad. Their easy-going air of mutual acceptance and harmonious relationships were a refreshing contrast to the artificial chumminess enforced by zealots motivated more by a compelling urge to flaunt their political correctness than by any affection for their fellow creatures. It was particularly satisfying to find that my fellow students accepted me as one of themselves, neither put off by my age nor overawed by it. I was really touched by the many kindnesses that many of them displayed: making sure that I had a good seat in the lecture rooms and making sure that I had all the necessary handouts. I like to think that I reciprocated by helping those whose knowledge of English and English literature was not up to scratch.

One thing that I found difficult to accommodate at first was the accents. Having served in the Indian Army during the Second World War I was accustomed to people from the subcontinent talking with Indian accents, and here I found myself confronted by British Asians chatting in accents that owed more to Bow than Bangalore, more to Manchester than Mumbai!

One thing that had not changed was the surface of the walls. SOAS was built in the period between the two world wars when concrete was all the rage and experimentation rife. At the same time there was a philosophy among architects that one should exploit the essential character of one’s materials and not cloak them with superimposed ornamentation. As a structural engineer I could not fail to notice that the concrete walls in SOAS had been designed according to an idea cribbed from a bus shelter in Italy in which rough timber boards were used to form the moulds against which the concrete was cast so that the grain of the wood and the joints between the boards were replicated in the concrete. I cannot claim to like the result, but the School’s walls are one of the best examples of this treatment I have seen and, for historical reasons, ought to be preserved for future generations to loathe!

I have nothing but fond memories of SOAS and am proud to have studied there.